The Life and Death of Data

with metaLAB(at)Harvard

“The Life and Death of Data” is interactive essay about the Arnold Arboretum, a living collection of trees, vines, shrubs and data. You can read a short review by Harvard’s Digital Arts & Humanities group here.

In collections of scientific and cultural history that are too big to see, data act as virtual handles for rare and delicate objects from the past. At the Arnold Arboretum, a long-lived collection of trees, vines and shrubs managed by Harvard University, landscapes from around the world and across time are stitched together by data. In this project, I argue that data have valuable histories as well. Created in varied social and technological eras, they register the organizational structures and values of their time. Using a combination of visualization and unstructured interviews at the Arnold Arboretum, this work examines what data can teach us about the social and material history of collecting as well as how to study collections digitally.

This multi-format exploration of the Arnold Arboretum is a component of a broader inquiry focused on illuminating how data organize knowledge at diverse institutions of collecting. The long and storied traditions of record keeping at libraries, museums and arboreta make these institutions opportune sites for studying entangled social and technical changes in practices with data. Harnessing a set of complementary methods, including unstructured interviews with data workers and visualizations of data themselves, this project examines collections records to reveal patterns in data that variously speak to or obscure their social histories and possible futures.


Data Artifacts

with metaLAB(at)Harvard

The term “artifact” has at least two meanings. From a technical perspective, an artifact is an unintentional pattern in data, arising from processes of collection and management. From a cultural perspective, an artifact is a designed object, with a social and material history. At metaLAB, which is grounded in both technical and cultural methods, we are examining digital artifacts with both meanings in mind. In Data Artifacts, we are developing visual methods of revealing the often-unacknowledged patterns in digital data that speak to the social and material history of its accumulation. Never raw, all data carries traces of human labor, intentions and values. Data Artifacts is an inquiry into the deep history of digital collections. Digital cultures, which devote vast resources to the harvesting and handling of data sets, can be understood in part through the particular ways in which they pattern data. Artists and designers with knowledge of computing are poised to uncover such data artifacts through visualization. However, most formal approaches to visualization call for data to be filtered and standardized at the outset. In contrast, we focus on the heterogeneity inherent in human-made data. The messiness of data sets can tell us much about the history of their production.

We don’t have to look beyond our own university to see the mechanisms of data collection in motion. For example, we can learn from the artifacts emergent in one of Harvard’s most commonly accessed digital resources, its open library data. Today, in 2012, there are over seventy libraries at Harvard, each with its own extensive collection. HOLLIS, the Harvard Online Library Information System, allows patrons to search for select volumes, but it does not afford panoramic views of the entire holdings or reveal macroscopic patterns in the acquisition, distribution, circulation, and citation of the university’s collections over time. The ambition of Data Artifacts is to develop new tools to contemplate such large-scale collection processes and enable richer discussions about their technical and cultural significance.

Also see The Library Observatory.


Networks & Natures

with metaLAB(at)Harvard

digitalSTS Workshop. Photo by Sara Wylie.

digitalSTS Workshop. Photo by Sara Wylie.

Networks & Natures is an exploratory research domain: a broadly defined area of scholarship, which we believe offers timely opportunities for the development of new digital forms of teaching, publication, curation, and community engagement. Such domains are interdisciplinary, building on the diverse interests of current researchers at metaLAB and bridging them, to create new spaces for collaborative inquiry and team development. Networks & Natures focuses on digital cultures emerging in landscapes variously defined as living, wild, open, or feral. It grows out of ongoing work in the Arnold Arboretum to develop a course, entitled Digital Ecologies, and an associated digital platform to support open-ended educational encounters with Harvard’s greenest collections.

We are now exploring environs beyond the gates of the Arboretum and their technological entanglements with a range of communities. We are casting our net wide and sampling the field of human-machine-environment relations in three different modes: talking, blogging, and hacking. Talks will occur regularly this fall, as part of a new Networks & Natures seminar series. We invite academics, practitioners, and community leaders to contribute their perspectives on the evolving meanings of “nature” in networked cultures. Meanwhile, weekly blog updates will be informed by our reading of contemporary literature in Ecology, Science Studies, and Human-Computer Interaction. Finally, we will pursue technology development as a form of inquiry in a series of participatory hacks that engage diverse audiences and encourage them to see their environments in new ways. Through this parallel set of activities, we hope to cultivate new collaborations, foster projects that demonstrate opportunities for digital scholarship, and learn about communities pressed by new quandaries concerning technology in the wild.


Teaching with Things

with metaLAB(at)Harvard

The Teaching with Things research initiative explores digital means of engaging with and annotating material collections at many scales. This prototype presents an interface at the scale of an individual object record, attended by a matrix of fragmentary representations and interpretations. The sample object in this record is an ostracon, a Ancient Greek note scrawled on a shard of pottery. Ostraca were meant to be ephemeral communication media, however a number of examples have survived to the present day. Harvard has a small collection hosted in Houghton, the university’s rare books library. The interface to this ostracon is divided in two. The left side is the curated portion, anchored by an animation of the ostracon in the round. On the right side of the divide is a timeline of external annotations arranged on a logarithmic scale. This prototype demonstrates the possibility of an object record composed of a diverse mosaic of representations: in text, image, and video; traditional and interactive; curated and open.


Visual Apollo

with David Mindell and the MIT Laboratory for Automation, Robotics, and Society

Data visualization can bring distributed social and technical relationships into view for professionals who study, design, or operate within complex computer-human systems. In traditional studies of computer-human relationships, qualitative and quantitative data are kept separate; sensor data and numerical calculations are graphed and charted, while human communications and interactions remain unseen. We believe a common format for examining both quantitative and qualitative data can reveal the multi-channel interactions in teams of humans and machines. Using the historical example of the 1969 Apollo 11 moon landing, this research presents opportunities and challenges in the visual display of social and technical data: integrating diverse sources, creating broadly accessible representations, and including time as an interactive variable. It introduces a timely and long-term endeavor, the development of a visual language and interface connecting researchers, designers, and operators in the study of distributed computer-human interactions.

Visual Apollo is available as a journal article or app for the mac here


Humans, Machines, and Operating Rooms

with David Mindell and the MIT Laboratory for Automation, Robotics, and Society

In the past few decades, American medical workers in cardiac surgery have witnessed significant technical and social changes in their work. In this domain, I grapple with the professional implications of those changes, specifically as they affect communication in coronary artery bypass graft (CABG) operations. In CABG cases, technical advances have improved the quality of grafts, the protection of the heart during cardioplegia, and the sterility of the operating room (OR). These were all major limitations to the success of CABG surgeries in the past. As a result, patients are leaving ORs after thoracic surgery with better blood flow, superior “squeeze,” lower chances of infection, and less damage to the heart during bypass. These changes have transformed cardiac surgery. Today, in 2012, performing a CABG is a routine activity in hospitals around the country. However, parallel improvements in cardiology — that address heart disorders through drugs and other non-surgical approaches — have meant that only the sickest patients make it to the operating table. The “typical” CABG case is now more complex than it has ever been. The new culture of the standardized cardiac OR is still emerging in everyday interactions among people, technologies, and policies. This research attempts to understand the cardiac OR’s most persistent values as well as its new challenges, with particular attention to practices of information exchange. My aim is to engage medical workers in reflecting on the evolving social and technical environment of the cardiac OR and to identify opportunities for improved communication and more equitable ways of handling errors and conflicts.


Angel Dust

with John Zissovici

Angel Dust exploits the fragmented world and navigational tools of Google Earth to suggest the impact and experience of Robert Moses’ unrealized project for the Mid-Manhattan Expressway. It juxtaposes Moses’s optimistic and weightless belief in progress with Walter Benjamin’s view of history as a series of disasters, and uses these competing views to structure the film as very different passages across Manhattan that retrace the path of the expressway that never was.


Surface Cities

with John Zissovici

"Skysphere" by Xiaben Dai

This is a research and teaching initiative, established to study our changing images of cities in the context of a new visual culture developing around information technologies. The website hosts a range of projects developed by faculty and students in the Department of Architecture at Cornell University. We are using information technologies to explore new ways of reading and handling cities for a variety of purposes, from environmental activism to extreme commuting. Our approach is to create dynamic, graphic and situated projects that extend or challenge established theories of urbanism. This work cuts across numerous fields (architecture, information science, and urban studies) in order to challenge traditional conceptions of the city that are static, depersonalized, and focused primarily on built form. In addition, it suggests new configurations of people, computers and cities that shift the discourse on human-computer interaction towards human-computer-environment interaction.


Design Tooling Web

with Stylianos Dritsas and Axel Kiliandesigntooling

The Design Tooling Web is a repository of knowledge about computation for designers. It is intended to act as an entry point into both technical and conceptual issues for people in design researchers and education. The goal of this repository is to develop a map of the heterogeneous terrain of theories, methods, concepts and platforms currently available. In addition, the Design Tooling Web contains examples which highlight documented paths through this terrain. It has been set up to support its own gradual development and enrichment through collaborative participation and peer contribution.

  • News

    08.10 "A place for Big Data: Close and
    distant readings of accessions data
    from the Arnold Arboretum" was just published in Big Data & Society. Read the article online here

    08.01 "Taking Big Data apart: local readings of composite media collections" was just published in Information, Communication, and Society. Read the article online here

    06.16 I have lots of travel coming up. I will be in New York for Critical Visualization, then Vancouver for Information+, and finally Brighton (UK), where I'm co-organizing a workshop at the Design Research Society.

    04.07.16 I will be talking about "The Life and Death of Data" as part of pyData Atlanta on April 7th @MailChimp

    03.14.16 Big Data, Local Data, Counter Data: three competing strategies for imagining the future. A blog post about our work on housing data.

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